Before I became a Christian at the age of 25 I had a yearning for truth. I tried to find it, of all places, at the local pub, “The Bull.” Not the deep truth of philosophers; just the everyday truth of belonging. Real ale and parties and pub banter provided the backdrop for this belonging. The trouble is, it wasn’t very “real.” The conversation was aimless and repetitive: we knew it all and knew absolutely nothing.
When I reached twenty I discovered a book about Michelangelo among my mother’s books. The amazing brilliance of this artist: painter, sculptor, architect, poet, as well as his brooding persona, and his dedication to the “Christian” humanist ideal, captivated me. I began to read about art history, beginning with Vasari’s Lives and broadening out into all periods. I found the expressions of truth in Caravaggio’s mixing of serenity and menace, Brueghel’s depictions of death in the midst of pastoral beauty, the dignity of the mundane in de Hooch Claude’s use of light, Constable’s clouds, Cezanne’s geometrical preoccupations. Men like these helped me to see that truth lay within the world around me. But for the most part, truth remained aloof.
The work of Vasari is punctuated by the presence of a man whose influence profoundly affected many of the artists Vasari wrote about. That man was a Domenican priest by the name of Girolamo Savonarola (d.1498). Roman Catholic though he was, from the accounts of his life which I have read, it appears that Savonarola was a converted man. But putting that question aside, what impressed me about him was how his preaching in the great cathedral at Florence brought about a real reformation in morals and a true fear of God in that Renaissance city.
Savonarola was not the only prominent man I read about. I also studied Machiavelli. The contrast between the motives of the two men—the one to make men see their answerability to God, the other to advise on the shenanigans of Cesare Borgia—started to make me see that truth was tied to motive. The martyr priest was more likely to point me to truth than the political philosopher. Notwithstanding, I did not “get religion” at that time, thinking it was a crutch and an escape. Instead I began to read authors I had run into in the history of art. I read Plato and Aristotle and Sophocles—the serious writers. After I’d had enough of them I indulged in the sarcasm of Aristophanes. From him I turned to Shakespeare, and then, for no real reason other than I liked the name, to Bertrand Russell. Again it became clear to me that even though the philosophers were brilliant and often witty, they seemed further from the truth than the poets and painters.
It was after plowing through most of Hans Kung’s Does God Exist? that I finally decided to read the Bible. My younger brother Craig had been reading the Bible for a while and now I felt I needed to do the same. I told myself that I could scarcely ignore such a book anymore.
I am very glad that I hit upon reading the Gospels first. These four short “Lives” set before me the most compelling person I had ever encountered. Jesus spoke right into me. He did not “philosophize” about truth; He just spoke it. He confronted you with it! And the odd thing was, I recognized it when I read it.
I did not accept Jesus’ claims right away. There was a lot of clutter that needed to be riffled through. Coming across John Drane’s doubt-filled book Jesus and the Four Gospels certainly didn’t help. But the Holy Spirit did not allow Drane’s concessions to historical criticism phase me. I was beginning to see that Truth was not a thing, a sort of home-plate to gain. Truth was not disconnected from the world; still less from people. Truth made claims upon me. Those claims I heard in Jesus’ voice and saw in His actions. Truth was personal. It was connected to Him who said “I am the truth!”
(To be continued)